In response to the October 27, 1989, police shooting of 23-year-old Black woman Sophia Cook, the Black Women’s Collective organized the Women’s Coalition Against Racism and Police Violence. The coalition of 35 women’s and progressive organizations brought people together on December 16, 1989, to demand police accountability and an end to police brutality against Black people.
Rage and grief. Agony and anger. COVID-19 has exposed deep racial and class inequalities embedded in Canada, and now, the brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, followed by the death of 29-year-old Afro-Indigenous woman Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto, has uncorked long-simmering anger about Black people being treated as disposable.
And yes, in Canada. Despite Canada’s feigned “innocence,” Regis Korchinski-Paquet’s death is only the latest in a long list of Black people who have died either through police violence or through police incompetence and negligence. The fight against police brutality is one that is longstanding and ongoing and resonates for many communities experiencing marginalization, and certainly for Indigenous people. Once again, we are being urged to say the names of those who have been murdered, to educate ourselves and to take action to dismantle the systems that dehumanize some while privileging others.
In an open letter from Black women leading community supports and services, Angela Robertson, Paulette Senior, and Debbie Douglas write:
“We are angry and traumatized by these ongoing deaths. As we call for transparency and accountability in the death of Regis, we push back on systems and structures that too often make invisible the deaths of Black women, Trans people and gender non-conforming people. We cannot turn away from the misogynoir (misogyny directed toward Black women where both race and gender play a part) that has characterized reporting about Regis’s death and the silences it creates. This week, we feel the pain and the rage of anti-Black racism and misogynoir afresh. It’s a wound that keeps opening, and it takes a psychic toll.” They go on to state the need for radical change to the “underlying structures and systems that govern our lives” and their refusal to accept anything short of justice:
“We refuse to accept as inevitable fatal outcomes in police encounters.
We refuse to make invisible the ways policing harms Black women, Black Trans and non-binary people.
We refuse to accept as unchangeable systemic inequalities that make health care inaccessible and mean that too many Black people only access mental health care when they are in deep distress.
We refuse to accept as normal systemic anti-Black racism that means Black people are more likely to live in poverty, face housing insecurity, face barriers in accessing education and are overly criminalized.
We refuse to accept as normal a world where our calls for justice are routinely dismissed and ignored.”
As an archive, Rise Up works to represent the past while making connections to the present, a project that is complex, difficult, and often fraught with injustice. There is an ongoing urgency to understand and acknowledge the history of anti-Black racism and police violence, while interrogating how feminist activism has at once been complicit in anti-Black racism as well as a site of solidarity. In order to dismantle systemic racism and white supremacy in the present, it is important to draw lessons from the past and to connect with previous struggles. People have been organizing for decades, and they teach us through their actions.
The extraordinary work of the Black Women’s Collective (BWC) is one such example and a source of knowledge and understanding about how Black women in Canada have long organized against police brutality. In response to the police shooting of 23-year-old Sophia Cook in October 1989, the BWC initiated the Women’s Coalition Against Racism and Police Violence. The coalition organized a protest two months after Cook was shot and temporarily paralyzed, and it issued a poignant statement speaking out about the need for an end to police brutality and other forms of systemic violence. The BWC had issued another statement addressing police brutality earlier that year in response to the death of Michael Wade Lawson.
At this moment, historic calls for police accountability, and disarming and defunding of the police, have gone from a whisper to a roar. In a recent article for Maclean’s, Sandy Hudson, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter Toronto, makes the case so clearly, writing that “defunding the police can free up funding that we can reinvest in services that provide real safety for both kinds of communities. The communities that are constantly exposed to police violence should not be deprived of effective safety and security services simply because more privileged communities feel safer when calling the police is an option.”
We move forward hopefully, as we look back, challenging historical and contemporary racism in feminist activism, while honouring those who have been in the struggle for decades and those who have just joined.
An image from the December 1989 rally against racism and police violence following the shooting of Sophia Cook.